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Swinging Through the Trees

October 19th, 2009

The thousand-furrowed, spiraling clouds of an angry 2012 rant have been gathering for some time on the horizons of my awareness… but today is not the day. Too much else going on. Head full of other things.

So instead, as a stopgap, a teaser, an eagle-feathered atlatl dart flung at the hurricane, here’s this, from Dennis Tedlock’s introduction to the Popol Vuh:

In theory, if we who presently claim to be human were to forget our efforts to find the traces of divine movements in our own actions, our fate should be something like that of the wooden people in the Popol Vuh. For them, the forgotten force of divinity reasserted itself by inhabiting their own tools and utensils, which rose up against them and drove them from their homes. Today they are swinging through the trees.

   Altars, Environmentalism, Monumental Metaphor, Precolombians, Reading, Religion | 2 Comments »

Casey Jones

October 5th, 2009

Long have I been familiar with the Grateful Dead ballad of that name, at whose lyrics I once giggled mischievously and thought I was getting away with something as I listened on my walkman headphones in bed late of a school night:

Come round the bend
You know it’s the end
The fireman screams and
The engine just gleams
Drivin’ that train
High on cocaine
Casey Jones you better
watch your speed

Years later I heard the traditional version by Mississippi John Hurt, with that one eerie verse that always sticks in my head, about his wife’s cold practicality upon hearing of her husband’s death:

Mrs. Casey when she heard the news
Sitting on her bedside, she was lacing up her shoes
Children, children now hold your breath
You will draw a pension at your Papa’s death

And of course there’s the Johnny Cash version… and Josh Ritter has a line about him in To the Dogs or Whoever, which I figured was a reference to all these other roots folk songs, since that’s sort of his M.O…. So I always assumed Casey Jones to be a purely folkloric figure, like Clementine, Peggy-o, John Henry, Fennario and Ichabod Crane. Specifically, I thought he was ye archetypal train engineer, in blue and white striped overalls with soot all over his face and a corncob pipe in his mouth, whistling dixie as he drove The Little Engine that Could up that mountain.

Not so, as it turns out. In fact, Casey Jones was a real, flesh and blood train conductor in the 1890s, who was so dedicated to his job and so good at it that he ended up as a national hero, with his face on a stamp and everything. He once saved a little girl from getting run over by a train by climbing down out of the cab onto the cowcatcher and snatching her up right off the tracks. He drove the famous “cannonball run” at eighty miles an hour between Chicago and New Orleans. He had a special way of blowing a train whistle so that whenever a train he was driving pulled into a station, you knew it was him at the tiller. And in 1900, on a densely foggy night passing through Memphis, Tennessee, he stayed onboard a doomed locomotive to save its passengers and crew. There was a stationary train idling on the same track as his own, and though he couldn’t prevent the collision, he managed to slow the train enough before impact that he himself was the only casualty.

Hence all these songs about him.

And what do you know, there’s an even older version of the song, by a fellow named Wallace Saunders, who was a friend of the real Casey Jones and worked with him on the railroad, which tells the story of his death.

Trust research to destroy your childhood illusions.

   HM, Music, Reading | No Comments »

The Borges in Eco

September 28th, 2009

Foucault’s Pendulum is an 800-page novel about the representatives of a vanity press, hell-bent on fabricating historical conspiracy for profit, who discover too late that they have fabricated truth, or something sufficiently indistinguishable from truth in the minds of its beholders to be worth killing for. The Name of the Rose is a 1000-page novel about the catastrophic failure of an investigation into a series of murders committed in a repetitive, mazelike library devoted to absurdly complex, meaningless religio-bureaucratic apocrypha.

Borges never wrote a novel. He wrote sketches for novels, two- or three-page treatments, spare and ephemeral, yet which laid out the bones of ideas so fathomless and colossal that, coming to the end of one, my thoughts are pulled in as many directions as though I had just completed something four hundred pages long.

I remember reading a comment of his upon this preference, in which—with that typical combination of self-effacing humility and absurdist ambition—he judged himself both unskilled or undisciplined enough to muster the great effort required to go from sketch to novel and consummately uninterested in the task, since another idea just as immense was always waiting. It was the creation of such kernels, the ambiguity and the possibility of them, that interested him most. Or so I recall him having said. Perhaps I am projecting. I’ve read so much Borges, in so many obscure, pencil-thin editions with titles varying endlessly upon the motif of tigers multiplied by optical illusion, dug from wonderful book-glue-mildew-smelling university library stacks where I had no business being, that I’ll likely never find that precise quote again. I have a vague impression of it coming from an introduction to someone else’s work—a heterogeneous anthology or a collection by Bioy-Casares…. But it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that at the end of this passage forswearing the long form, Borges encourages other authors to do with his ideas what he will not: make novels of them.

And so we get these labyrinthine, Borgesian novels of the real and unreal, of conspiratory mass-self-delusion and headlong dives into the carefully-delineated infinite, things like Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Carlos Ruis Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, to name two distant poles within that spectrum. And we get Umberto Eco.

And me. I hope. Someday.

   HM, Reading, Writings | No Comments »

Transcendental Gastronomy

August 10th, 2009

What follows are Brillat-Savarin’s rules for achieving the perfect meal. As far as I’m concerned, among the poetry of the rational they ought to be considered on par with The Art of War, Ovid’s Art of Love, and the Phaedo. They open with a solemn invocation to a Muse of Eating invented on the spot, and they close with immortality—but what’s in between is the stuff of everyday, run-of-the-mill happiness.

But the impatient reader may ask, how, in this year of grace 1825, must a meal be contrived in order to combine the conditions which procure the pleasures of the table in the highest degree?

That question I am about to answer. Compose yourselves, readers, and pay attention; Gasterea inspires me, the prettiest of all the Muses; I shall be clearer than an oracle, and my precepts will go down the ages.

Let the number of guests be not more than twelve, so that the talk may be constantly general;

Let them be chosen with different occupations but similar tastes, and with such points of contact that the odious formalities of introduction can be dispensed with;

Let the dining-room be well lighted, the cloth impeccably white, and the atmosphere maintained at a temperature of from sixty to seventy degrees;

Let the men be witty without being too pretentious, and the women charming without being too coquettish;

Let the dishes be few in number, but exquisitely choice, and the wines of the first quality, each in its class;

Let the service of the former proceed from the most substantial to the lightest, and of the latter, from the mildest to the most perfumed;

Let the progress of the meal be slow, for dinner is the last business of the day; and let the guests conduct themselves like travellers due to reach their destination together;

Let the coffee be piping hot, and the liqueurs chosen by a connoisseur;

Let the drawing-room be large enough to allow a game at cards to be arranged for those who cannot do without, yet still leave space for postprandial conversations;

Let the guests be detained by the charms of the company and sustained by the hope that the evening will not pass without some further pleasure;

Let the tea be not too strong, the toast artistically buttered, and the punch mixed with proper care;

Let retirement begin not earlier than eleven o’clock, but by midnight let everyone be in bed.

Whoever has been present at a meal fulfilling all these conditions may claim to have witnessed his own apotheosis; and for each of them who which is forgotten or ignored, the guests will suffer a proportionate decrease of pleasure.

Jean-Anthelme Brillat Savarin, Physiologie du goût, ou Méditations de gastronomie transcendante

It’s hard not to notice: the man’s got an ego on him. But he’s not wrong, is he? This stuff is gold. Interpret some of these things metaphorically, the way I do, say, that line about giants in the bible, and he could really be talking about my local writing group in Noho the other week, a recent weekend with my gaming pals, a night of blissful exhaustion and bisquick pizza cooked over a propane burner on a trail somewhere under the stars, or a protracted dinner with the Homeless Moon. Some of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

   Hedonism, HM, Reading, Transcendentalism | 5 Comments »

TNEO 2009 Flash Fiction Slam

July 22nd, 2009

is tonight, at the Barnes & Noble on 1741 Willow Street in Manchester, NH. Four of the five writers who make up the Homeless Moon will be there, plus a whole bunch of other clever and hilarious people, each of whom will tell a story in five minutes or less. It’s great, silly fun.

And I’ll be reading a new William-O story. Woo!

William-O the Pirate King, if you are unfamiliar, is my swashbuckling, one-eyed cat hero, who battles foes both real and supernatural in defense of his farm and family.

If you can’t make it, fear not, I’ll probably post an mp3 of the new story here in a couple of weeks.

   HM, News, Reading | 3 Comments »

Gloomy Russians Looking Awkward at the Beach

June 22nd, 2009

Liz Hand closed her summer reading LJ post the other day with an ironical apology for the absence from her list of any Proust, Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky. What means this? thought I, who happened to be reading Anna Karenina. I’ve heard of War and Peace referred to as the end-all antithesis of mindless beach reading. And I have no doubt at one point or another performed similar pseudo-intellectual self-flagellation with Crime and Punishment. But I didn’t exactly pick up Anna Karenina for that purpose—it was more just one of those spur of the moment things, at a loss for reading material before a bookshelf assembled for other tastes than my own. And you know, I don’t actually feel particularly oppressed by it. Granted, I haven’t attempted to get anywhere in the book while using it as a sun-shield on the beach. But for someone who reads as slowly as I do, it actually has been flying right by. No comparison to Dostoevsky, really, either for the bleakness of the material or the density of the prose. It might even be easier to decipher than somebody like Jane Austen, who among ye classic 19th century novelists is much more likely to be stereotyped as a beach reading option.

I’m not very well-versed in Tolstoy. I’ve read “The Death of Ivan Ilych” a few times, which strikes me as being much more tongue-in-cheek satirical than Anna Karenina, more influenced by Gogol. The main intent in Anna Karenina, rather than sending up the ills of a society as a whole or attacking its hypocrisies, seems to be to illustrate, in painstaking nuance and verisimilitude, the series of core character types and variations on the core that make up society and cause it to function as it does. So we get a lot of extensive, internal character sketches, an incredible number of and an incredible willingness to shift between POVs. The elements of plot and conflict seem very deliberately designed to provide opportunities to show us these characters in all possible lights and from all angles. Which I guess makes it less titillating, less of a page-turner, than say a Pride & Prejudice or Crime & Punishment, if either of those works can be said to possess any such quality. But it also means reading Anna Karenina requires less vestedness from the reader, allowing it to be picked up and laid aside with surprising carelessness. And since what I’m reading for isn’t the next twist in a gothic romance, but rather the next facet of a wise and exhaustive survey into human nature, I feel much freer to dally and skim as suits the moment and my mood. So—not your typical summer reading in the usual sense, but for me, at least, it works really well.

My favorite parts are the occasional, brief tidbits of generalization Tolstoy interjects to explicate a character action or tendency we have just been shown, but which in almost every case can be applied with equal ease to every situation ever encountered, in real life or in fiction, among people of the type being discussed. Because Tolstoy is just that perceptive.

This, for example, is the reaction of the tortured, true artist Mihailov to the idle hobbying of the bored, wealthy Count Vronsky. One of the bitterest instances I’ve come across, but I like it.

He knew that Vronsky could not be prevented from amusing himself with painting; he knew that he and every other dilettante had a perfect right to paint what they liked, but it was distasteful to him. A man could not be prevented from making himself a big wax doll, and kissing it. But if the man were to take his doll and go and sit down in the presence of a man in love, and start caressing his doll as the lover caressed his beloved, it would be distasteful to the lover. Mihailov had just such a feeling of distaste at Vronksy’s painting: he was amused, irritated, sorry, and affronted.

I’m pretty sure I’ve been on both ends of that feeling.

   HM, Reading | No Comments »


May 25th, 2009

Titus Petronius Niger, the man scholarly consensus seems to agree is the author of the scandalous, fragmentary narrative of debaucherous and decadent abandon known as the Satyricon, was a consul in Nero’s senate in AD 62; subsequently, he became something akin to Nero’s personal social director, granted the unofficial title “Arbiter of Elegance”. Tacitus, in his Annals, describes Petronius as a man who treated idleness as his profession, “one who made luxury a fine art”. “In the end,” says Tacitus, “Nero’s jaded appetite regarded nothing as enjoyable or refined unless Petronius had given sanction to it.”

In AD 66, after a rival poisoned Nero’s affections against him, Petronius made effort to flee Rome, was thwarted, and so decided to preempt his likely torture and execution with suicide. He threw an extravagant dinner party, during which he opened his veins and bled himself slowly to death to the accompaniment of feasting, wine, music, satiric poetry, and pithy conversation.

There’s a dude who stuck to his principles.

I think I’ve been aware of Petronius as a historical figure for a while, but had until not so very long ago considered him among the ranks of Machiavelli, the Marquis de Sade, and Nero himself: egomaniacal pretend intellectuals championing amorality for no other purpose than to further their own fame—the people who brought us Charles Manson.

I have to admit, though, that hedonism, at least in a watered-down form, has gained a certain abstract appeal for me. Pseudopagan pantheism does seem to lend itself to a philosophy of pleasure. And the ideas involved do have a great deal of practical relevance for me, if not necessarily as a human being, then as a writer. What with the centaurs and all.

So I’ve been reading the Satyricon—in a used Penguin Classics edition, translated by J.P. Sullivan, which is a lot of fun in that it couches all the homoerotic innuendo and hypermasculine grandstanding in the terms of stiff-upper-lip 20th century British slang. And it really is a pleasure. The characters are actually quite reasonable people, even wise, in their approach to their debaucheries. As a window on the culture and period, it’s utterly fascinating, an unplumbable resource. And the parallels with modern culture—and by extension, with human culture across geography and era, whenever a society has passed its peak—are just astounding. For example, certain passages—street chases and a vicious love triangle between two men and a boy—remind me very much of the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. The wealth of pithy witticisms evoke Oscar Wilde, the party scenes Rabelais. Even the scene structure and pacing seem to prophesy a good few thousand years into the future.

All these parallels with later stuff are so numerous and engrossing, it took me awhile to realize that the Satyricon also looks a lot like a prose reinterpretation of the epic poetry form. There are nested stories, comparisons to the exploits of gods and legendary heroes, and points at which the narrative is temporarily arrested for a long soliloquy on aesthetics or philosophy—though, in the case of the Satyricon, such soliloquies are as likely to be about the etiquette of sharing a nubile youth among a roomful of older men as about the death of art.

In short, I highly recommend it to anybody with the capacity for patience and detachment necessary to look past all the gorging and fondling and see the Satyricon for the solid gold it is. If you appreciate the centaurs, I think you’ll be as fascinated by it as I am.

To close, a piece of ageless wisdom on the plight of the struggling writer from Eumolpus, the Satyricon‘s sexpot poet:

‘No doubt about it. If a man sets his face against every temptation and starts off on the straight and narrow, he’s immediately hated because of his different ways. No one can approve of conduct different from his own. And secondly, those who are interested in piling up money don’t want anything else in life regarded as better than what they have themselves. So lovers of literature are sneered at by whatever means possible to show that they too are inferior to wealth.’

   Centaurs, Hedonism, HM, Reading | 3 Comments »

For Crying Out Loud

April 28th, 2009

Get Small Beer Press books for $1. $1!

Kalpa Imperial, Magic for Beginners, Generation Loss—these are %@!$ing phenomenal books. I feel guilty promoting this sale. They are worth more than that!

But what can I do.

   News, Reading | 2 Comments »

Show Not Tell

April 20th, 2009

I just stumbled onto possibly the best object lesson in showing, not telling in fiction I’ll ever get.

In 2005, I wrote a story called “Hope and Erosion”, about a kingdom living in a sandcastle threatened by the rising tide. It was the second story I’d ever sold, to a Christian fantasy e-zine called Dragons, Knights and Angels. I was very proud of it at the time. At the time, it was the best story I’d ever written.

In 2004, all unbenknownst to me at the time, Jeffrey Ford wrote a story called “The Annals of Eelin Ok”, which was published in Datlow and Windling’s The Faery Reel, and won the Fountain Award for that year (and on whose website it can still be read for free). It’s based on the exact same premise: a tiny, fantastical being living out his life in a sandcastle made by human hands. His story is way better. I just listened to it on a Podcastle show from a couple weeks back, read by Rajan Khanna, who may be my new favorite podcast reader—his voice is understated, quiet and calm and eminently listenable, but somehow capable of hitting just the right emotional notes with the strength of a clapper striking a cathedral bell. It almost made me cry.

Here’s the lesson: everything about a story is more powerful when you’re experiencing it right there with the character. “Hope and Erosion” is told like a parable. Hermit, the hero, is a hero in the classic fairytale sense, the way Sir Gawain is a hero, or the Red Cross Knight. Which is fine, but there’s no understanding that kind of hero as a person. He’s away up there on the pedestal of myth.

Eelin Ok is a fairy, but he’s a person. His whole life is there on the page, his heart is open, and you’re in it.

I suppose this lesson may work better on me than on you, gentle reader, since you may not have had the luck to have written the exact same story as Jeffrey Ford. But if you feel so inclined, you might could get a similar effect if you read the two stories side by side.

Read the Jeff Ford story, anyway, if you haven’t. It’s awesome.

   HM, Reading, Writings | 3 Comments »

What the hell is a sun machine?

March 9th, 2009

This question occurred to me thanks to the shuffle switch on my ipode, which, on a long, lonely drive through Vermont in a wet snowstorm, presented me, all out of context, with “Memory of a Free Festival”: the distantly trippy, elegiac-in-the-face-of-joyful, seven-minute final track off David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Ostensibly, it’s a jangly-organ folk ballad celebrating free love and boundless hippie optimism, with a hint of the wonderful irony for which I so love Bowie:

We claimed the very source of joy ran through
It didn’t, but it seemed that way
I kissed a lot of people that day

But all that stuff trails off around the three minute mark, and for the final four minutes we get a wild cacophony of toy-piano tinkling, trombone-kazoo-clapping and distant fairy laughter, over which Bowie and a chorus of euphoric voices chant, over and over:

The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party

Which I presume we are to interpret as a return to our regularly scheduled glammed-out alien space messiah Bowie. Take the green acid so when Ashtar and the Aquarians get here, they’ll know you’re one of the enlightened and you’ll get to ride off with them on the crystal ship.

Goofy velour pantsuit cliche notwithstanding, however, this was kind of a revelatory moment for me. Growing up, I had a completely different association with the term “sun machine”, based on a Percy Hill song of comparable epic length, but a very different aesthetic: a white boy jam-band soul-funk anthem, which goes like this:

I don’t care if the world may end
I’ll be just fine inside my sun machine
I cannot say my friends
when I’ll put down this foolish game
I hope it never ends
And time will never tell

Hallucinogens and benevolent alien abductions? Yeah, maybe. But that’s not what I thought at the time. I always assumed it was a reference to Ray Bradbury. In Dandelion Wine, a loving suburban husband, father of two, and inventor cribbed straight from the American Dream, sets out to build a Happiness Machine in his garage, basically a phone booth full of visions of everything you most desire. It nearly destroys him and his family.

His wife was quieter now. “Leo, the mistake you made is you forgot some hour, some day, we all got to climb out of that thing and go back to dirty dishes and the beds not made. While you’re in that thing, sure, a sunset lasts forever almost, the air smells good, the temperature is fine. All the things you want to last, last. But outside, the children wait on lunch, the clothes need buttons. And then let’s be frank, Leo, how long can you look at a sunset? Who wants a sunset to last? Who wants perfect temperature? Who wants air smelling good always? So after awhile, who would notice? Better, for a minute or two, a sunset. After that, let’s have something else. People are like that, Leo. How could you forget?”

But Dandelion Wine is about time and memory and regret, not neon angelic visions. In 1957, when Bradbury wrote it, LSD existed and was legal, but I don’t think it was nearly the pop phenomenon it would have needed to be for Bradbury’s readership to get the reference–particularly in the context of the half-remembered halcyon summer 1928 suburbia of the novel.

So I don’t know. Maybe there’s no connection between Bradbury, the Bowie song, and the impossible dreams of my youth.

Or maybe, just maybe, this is another one of those monumental metaphors that has always been and will always be waiting somewhere in the back of every human consciousness, waiting around for the dawn or the re-dawn of the industrial age so it makes sense again, waiting for somebody to write a song or a story to invoke it so it can share its universal, esoteric wisdom with the world.

Because I go and google “sun machine” and look: there’s a band, three different albums by three other bands, a computer company, a german heating company, and look, even a grandiloquent hoax perpetrated at the 1904 St. Louis World fair, all operating under that name!

Jeez, I wonder if everybody else is referencing this thing?

Wouldn’t that be cool.

   HM, Monumental Metaphor, Music, Reading | No Comments »

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